title(“Society’s Pliers”)


 

The Second Media and Democracy Congress was held this past
October 16–18. It was an auspicious affair, bringing together nearly 1,000 folks from
all manner of media operations and projects around the country. The aim was to develop
insights and connections to help force mainstream media to do a better job, to better
utilize the limited mainstream venues progressives enjoy, and to develop our own
alternative media fully in tune with our values and priorities.

The M&D conference ran for two full days with a third
day – at the outset – devoted to ancillary meetings and sessions. Also, one of
the main benefits was the micro element: the informal chats, lunches, and small gatherings
that help folks get to know one another, network, and sometimes establish new working
relations. To try to capture some of what went on and what it tells us about ourselves,
here are some snapshots, if you will.

 

Snapshot One: Money and Institution
Building—Ask the Pros…

An opening day panel on Money and Institution Building is
sponsored by some of the more grassroots elements present. The audience is naturally
mostly folks who work in relatively small, financially highly-stressed, non-profit
projects. The panel is two folks, Jay Harris, the Publisher of Mother Jones, and Hamilton
Fish, past publisher of The Nation and current President of The Nation Institute. Aside
from the incongruity of these flush institutions with connections galore and huge budgets
lecturing on how to get money—rather than, say, setting up meetings with donors for
the smaller projects, or not charging them for the use of reader lists for mailings, or
providing promotion space in their pages free—there was well, a sharing of their
wisdom. And at one point, to give an example of this wisdom, Fish notes that The Nation,
for various reasons dating back to earlier years, is not a non-profit company. No matter
that it has investors, however, because, Fish tells us, they have no impact on the
periodical itself. Not five minutes later he jokingly points out that the current main
investor, Victor Navasky, is sitting in the room listening, and also just happens to be
both Publisher and Editorial Director of The Nation. Ha. Ha. Everyone chuckles and Fish
continues. But Fish might have also noted—though the joking tone might not have
sufficed to cover the incongruity of the fact–that were the structure of the Nation (or
MJ) as an institution abstracted out of its Masthead and placed alongside a structure
abstracted out of the masthead of the New York Times, say, or Time magazine, there would
be few consequential differences.

No one, not Harris nor Fish nor anyone else in attendance
asked why it was, if funding plays no role in the definition of "our"
periodicals, almost all of our periodicals are run from the top-down by either the primary
donor/investor or the key fund-raising person in the institution, unless no such
individual exists. This seems to be a remarkable oversight for a group of left-leaning
individuals at least as sensitive to "watching the money" as Deep Throat, say,
of Watergate fame.

Some radicals writers for The Nation say, "come one,
stop expecting so much of The Nation already, it isn’t an alternative publication."
Well, I say back: (1) Why not expect more? That is, why not expect that the radical
writers and other radical employees of The Nation identify the actual failings of their
institution and work to make it better rather than operating as if they have no possible
capacity or responsibility to impact it. And, (2) why is The Nation, despite its
limitations, regarded as the exemplar precisely re money and institution building at a the
Media and Democracy Congress, and even at one of its more grass-roots sessions?

 

Snapshot Two: Who are we—Let’s be Inclusive
Now

Periodically, folks on panels tried to describe who we are
at the Media and Democracy Congress. Their answer: "We are `Independent Media’,"
which is to say, we are all media not owned by national or international conglomerates.
One analyst explicitly urged that we use this precise term, "independent,"
rather than such vague concepts as "alternative." Other analysts just implicitly
eliminated all but the "independent media" label by refraining to use other
adjectives. (And those panelists that did use the label "alternative" were with
few exceptions vague enough so it may as well have meant independent anyhow.)

So what, you might ask? Well, the term "independent
media" with its given definition encompasses Z and the Village Voice, The Nation and
Monthly Review, Micro radio and Pacifica and NPR as well—also right wing newsletters,
small corporate Cable companies, local aspiring small capitalist consumer guides. In fact,
anything fits–right or left, large or small, authoritarian or democratic, racist or
multi-cultural, patriarchal or feminist, statist or anarchist, and corporate or
anti-corporate – as long as it isn’t owned by Time Warner or some other behemoth like
that.

Well, okay, I agree that sometimes it is useful to
distinguish independent from subordinate in this manner, but if this is our only
adjective, if being owned by a multinational or not is the only differentiation we use,
then implicitly the only goal we share for ourselves is to escape multinational
domination. This seems to fall far short of what one would hope for from a Media and
Democracy Congress. What is the point of exploring what good media ought to be and how to
operate better if this is the only standard we possess. And if being
"independent" isn’t our only value, if we also distinguish, say, between being
alternative and mainstream, then what is that fissure based on?

 

Shapshot Three: Pacifica—What was the issue,
again?

At the first Media and Democracy Congress Pacifica’s Pat
Scott got a merit award and made an acceptance speech, and there was no other formal
attention for the on-going conflicts racking Pacifica. This year, to its credit, The Media
and Democracy Congress scheduled an extra long panel, "the politics of public
radio," with a variety of participants including Pat Scott and Norman Solomon, and
with much time for audience questions and debate. There is only so much that can be
accomplished by such an exchange, of course. Solomon gave a simultaneously reasoned and
also movingly concerned presentation raising many critical questions about Pacifica. Scott
defended her administration’s actions. My main problem wasn’t with these panelists roles,
who did what they were there to do, but with the audience. With one or two exceptions the
questions and comments from the floor were aggressively critical of Scott and current
policies, and also, I have to say, largely incoherent to anyone listening. Impassioned to
the point of being uncivil, the questions/comments were barely constructive and managed to
surface little sensible exchange. Most disturbing, I think, was the number of people
currently associated with Pacifica, who had real and in depth first hand knowledge of
goings on within Pacifica’s stations, sitting in the audience outraged at the current
policies and what they felt were misrepresentations, yet unwilling to take any public
stand. They fear for their jobs, they say. Okay, so, now what? Why is the dissident side
of this dispute: (a) so muddled, and (b) for those who I believe wouldn’t be muddled, so
quiet? What is the isolating and disempowering dynamic, not just inside Pacifica but in
the progressive community more broadly, that yields these outcomes, and how can it be
overcome?

 

Snapshot Four: Communication or Commodification

On Saturday night there was a Nation sponsored big-event
thematic panel titled State of the Media. This had promise, I thought, as I sat waiting
for it to get started. Walter Isaacson, the Editor of Time Magazine, sat on stage with a
bunch of our people and Bill Moyers as moderator. Well, in my opinion Moyers did his job,
trying to provoke interesting exchange, and Isaacson did his job, defending and posturing
about his institution as best he could. Again, however, what was disturbing to me was our
side of the affair. Isaacson was castigated by Marc Crispin Miller for Time running covers
that promote its parent company’s movies. Unenlightening exchange about the ills of cross
promotion went on for some time (the only interesting aspect was the extent to which
Isaacson’s reaction to every point was to first note Newsweek’s similar policies,
indicating how could Time do otherwise, the power of market homogenization/competition on
display but unaddressed.) At one point, Katha Pollitt made the seemingly obvious point
that talk about Time being owned by a parent conglomerate was really beside the point.
Time was no better on the axes that matter 50, 10, or 5, years ago, before being bought up
and before recent intense centralization of media. But no one then asked, okay, what is it
then, about Time that makes it despicable, and, more to the point, what lessons do we
take? In fact, no one challenged Isaacson with serious documentation and evidence
regarding Time’s contents, regarding the relative weight given to different types of
story, regarding the absence of certain types of content, and so on. There wasn’t a single
word spoken about the class structure within Time itself, about Isaacson’s power within
the institution, for example. There was almost nothing about the role of advertising; no
questions re the make-up of the budget, exactly how important ads are, and what
advertisers want. The exchanges felt mostly kind of folksy. They appeared largely off the
cuff. There was no analysis of ten years of Time covers, say, or of a year’s worth of its
columns, broken down regarding content and bias. An opportunity to use Time, and its
Editor, to make points more broadly about mainstream media and its role in society, seemed
squandered. More, where people yelled and felt intense passion with Pacifica’s Scott, just
a few hours before, this guy from Time was treated with kid gloves. I sat
wondering…this person is near the top of the media apparatus that sustains,
justifies, obscures, and partakes of crimes against humanity every day of every week. Why
is he treated so congenially, beyond civility to the point of avoiding disagreement and
contestation? Why is his organization not subject to serious, sober, but aggressive
analysis, to make the points that need to be made about mainstream media, both for the
audience at hand, and for those who hear the exchanges on tape, see it on cable and video,
hear it on radio, and so on? What is it about the creation of a panel like this, or the
pressures on its participants, or their circumstances more generally, or whatever else,
that yields such a lame outcome? Is it a party atmosphere, is it too much cocktail circuit
interactions for the participants, as many in the audience said, so that debate and
engagement becomes just a game or a job for people. Or is it something more subtle about
our self definitions and awareness? Also profoundly disturbing, was that the same people
who sat in the audience disparaging members of the panel unmercifully – for example,
feeling that Christopher Hitchens was "performing" and was an "elite,
obnoxious, show-off who didn’t prepare at all," and so on – would then,
afterward, sidle up to Hitchens, praising him to the roof, laughing and joking with him,
leaving him, of course, feeling that, hey, everyone had a grand time, my script was just
fine. The ultimate issue isn’t Hitchens or any other panelist, one way or the other. The
issue is us, again, our priorities and agendas, our inability to express what we feel so
that it might be seriously and soberly addressed.

There was much at the Media and Democracy Congress besides
these few panels, to be sure. Some was troubling, some quite productive. For example,
there were highly instructive gatherings about radio production and creation, and about
telecommunications politics and options. On the matter of technical innovation and
information generally, in fact, there was much that was useful. There were informative
gatherings about media concentration, about campaigns regarding public media, about
building community, about diversifying media staffs, and so on. Z did a panel on what
makes Alternative Media Alternative, of mixed success, I would say. Michael Moore gave a
side-splitting but very provocative talk arguing that the latent class biases of much of
the left—visible in its attitudes to normal working people and their daily life
preferences—were a horrible obstacle to the growth of progressive activism. (This has
been a frequent theme for me as well. Moore was infinitely more adroit than I at being
heard—he had the place rolling in the aisles laughing, largely at ourselves, and
admiring even fawning over his presentation and self. But the trouble, was, it seemed to
me, that after the laughing, there wasn’t much attention to the actual meaning and
implications of Moore’s claims. Again, this was too bad, but to the extent it was the
case, it wasn’t so much Moore’s fault, or the Congress’s fault, but our fault.) There were
also planned and spontaneous gatherings of folks involved in local, grassroots, media
organizing and projects trying to find ways to link to one another and to develop mutual
support and shared agendas. This was very constructive, indeed and one wondered, at each
such gathering, why it wasn’t a much more focal aspect of the event as a whole.

 

Well, can we take some positive lessons from it
all?

I think a Media and Democracy Congress that means to
represent the broad range of independent and alternative progressive media work in the
U.S. has to be put together by a larger sector of people than the Institute for
Alternative Journalism.

As long as The Institute for Alternative Journalism are the
sole hub through which all energy flows and by which all decisions are made, their imprint
will be all over the Congress – understandably and rightfully given their effort.
This time they did much better than last on issues of balance of panel participants, for
example, and focus of panels as well. But one organization’s imprint is not enough,
however hard it tries and whatever organization it may be, to yield the diversity of
conception and design an encompassing Congress needs. Next time, let’s broaden the
sponsorship and spread more of the responsibility.

A Media and Democracy Congress needs to be clear that not
being owned by a multinational is an insufficient foundation on which to rest our identity
and provides almost no guidance for improving our work. We therefore need to settle on a
meaningful list of values we believe in and aspire to fulfill, that we can judge ourselves
against, and improve ourselves in terms of.

In October’s issue of Z, handed out at the conference, I
had a piece describing what I thought makes alternative media alternative which was also
the topic of Z’s panel at the conference. In both places I said that to be alternative
media means to the extent possible "to forego maximizing profits," "to
avoid selling audience to commercial advertisers," "to seek broad and non-elite
audience," "to reduce and ultimately remove typical oppressive
hierarchies," and "to actively support other like-motivated projects." It
seems to me, indeed, that for media institutions to be labeled alternative they ought to
agree that reducing income differentials; disentangling authority from money; developing
jobs balanced for quality of life and empowerment effects so that all can partake of
decision-making intelligently; incorporating truly democratic and participatory decision
making structures; steadily diminishing gender and race biases in employment and in on the
job culture and product; and developing non-elite outreach and mutually supportive
relations among our projects are worthy goals to inspire alternative media policy-making.
But if this list is bad or incomplete, fine, we need to fix it. The point is, if we are
going to make collective progress we have to have a shared a workable, respected, notion
of who we are and what progress means.

A third Media and Democracy Congress needs to focus on
constructive mechanisms for people and institutions doing valuable media work to enhance
one another’s efforts and learn from differences and criticisms others may have. And if we
are going to spend any time critiquing the mainstream, then, please, let’s do a definitive
job so we can get on to our own agendas henceforth.

Again in the October issue, I proposed, for the second
time, a Federation of Alternative Media Activists and Supporters, with preliminary
suggestions about structure, decision making, and program. Is FAMAS a good idea? I don’t
know. No doubt at a minimum it needs refinement. But I do know that FAMAS or not,
something is needed and that if it can’t emerge from the process of the Media and
Democracy Congress, for whatever reasons, then folks who do alternative media and who have
shared values and aims that transcend not being owned by multinationals need another path
to get to some working unity and coherence.

So how about this as a capstone to Media and Democracy
Congress 2? How about if our periodicals, radio stations and networks, cable outfits,
video operations, book publishers, and speakers bureaus, and our writers, journalists,
announcers, speakers, film-makers and all other workers in our media institutions, and our
"audiences" as well, together, over the next 18 months, debate and develop a
clear conception of what we are trying to accomplish with alternative media, and of what
it means to do a better or worse job as an alternative media worker or institution, so
that we can take that agreement, whatever it turns out to be, to Media and Democracy
Congress 3 or some other suitable venue, as needed, and come out of its deliberations with
an organizational apparatus and program for collectively moving forward. If we do less, I
suspect we will do Congress 1 and 2 all over again, and, if for no other reason than
staleness, that that won’t even be worth attending.